As a teacher, I found that poetry was one of the best tools for getting to know my students. When I taught Middle School English, I began every school year with poetry for this reason and because it also allowed me to bring in music, teach figurative language, and sensory detail. Although poems are typically shorter pieces of work, they nevertheless require students to reflect, express themselves, and connect with their emotions. Without fail, no matter what students wrote about in their poems, their personalities and true feelings came out. Every poem helped me gain insight into their feelings and their lives and ultimately served to better understand them as individuals, which would in turn enhance their learning experiences.
One year, I received a poem from Jaime (a fictitious name for a real student) that made me question whether or not the student was creatively expressing his ideas honestly and transparently, or if his work was a legitimate cry for help. Jaime had always struck me as a respectful and well-adjusted student, although in the first weeks of class, I had regularly encouraged him to participate more in class discussions and to overcome his reluctance to speak. His poem read:
I know that no one will hear my sound
And no one will feel my pain or even feel my emotions
That’s it, everything is gone
My time is over
I feel dizzy
Or maybe everything around me is creepy
I’m not crazy, I’m not a sickly person
I’m just dead morally, waiting for the deadly body
I’m fed up from this life
I’m fed up from people
I’m fed up from myself
There is no medication that can help me
There is only drugs
It’s too late now
I lost my mind
I lost my life
I lost my feelings
I lost my dreams
I found the solution
Staying up all night listening to sad music and injuring myself by a blade is the solution.
I’m thinking, “Why am I even in life? Why did God create me?”
If he even exists
Is this the life which I made my mom suffering for mine worth love?
What am I saying?
Don’t listen to me
And my last words are
How does a teacher react when he or she reads a poem from a student like Jaime? Did Jaime have legitimate thoughts about hurting himself, or was this a fictional or glorified account written for poetic purposes? While I was undoubtedly impressed with Jaime’s diction and prose, I couldn’t help but wonder if the poem reflected a darker reality that he only felt comfortable sharing through poetry.
I decided that it would be better to err on the side of caution and reached out to colleagues and school administrators. What are some of the lessons learned about this experience, and what advice should teachers consider if they suspect students may be a danger to themselves and/or others?
Act Fast, Don’t Wait
When I first read this poem, it was over a weekend. Students had given me their final drafts on a Friday for me to look at before they would turn their poems into poetry videos. I read this poem on a Sunday, and after reading and discussing it with my wife, I decided to contact the counselor, principal, and director of the school. Contacting them allowed me to come up with a strategy for the next day of school to address the poem and his thoughts with the student.
Having the support of trained professionals and school administrators quickly melted away any apprehension that I had about violating the student’s confidentiality, hurting his feelings, or misinterpreting the intent of the poem. It was helpful that the staff that I shared this issue with expressed their appreciation that I had shared this information with them, as well as their genuine concern for the student. It’s always better to be safe than sorry, so if you ever find yourself in a questionable situation where you may suspect something to the student, it is still better to immediately act fast and report your suspicions to school administrators.
Is there any immediate danger?
After speaking to the school director, principal, and counselor, we decided that the student was not in any immediate danger. Still, we needed to talk to him as soon as possible. Had we felt that the student was an imminent danger to either himself or others, we likely would have initiated a much more serious and immediate intervention.
Hold an initial conversation
Do you speak to the student, and if so, what other staff should be in the meeting? How and when do you notify the student’s parents? Should other students be questioned or spoken to regarding Jaime’s behavior?
Together with the counselor, we agreed that we would speak with the student first thing Monday morning with both of us in attendance. It was reassuring to know that I had the support of the school’s counselor, and we agreed to report our findings to the principal and director afterwards. We also agreed that after the initial meeting, the counselor would speak to Jaime privately just in case he wanted to share any information privately.
Be transparent and express your concern
The first thing I did when I got to school that Monday morning was to find the student. Part of me did this because I was worried about him. I was afraid that maybe he had done something to himself over the weekend.
During our meeting, we expressed our admiration for his poem and the effort that he had put into it. We also told him that reading the poem created a genuine concern for his safety, which was the rationale behind me reporting this to other staff members at the school. Expressing these two beliefs was an attempt to have Jaime understand that we cared and appreciated him so that he might tell us the true meaning behind his words.
After I let Jaime know why I was talking to him, I asked him directly, “Are you thinking of suicide?” Jaime said that he had thought about it but was not seriously considering it.
I then followed up with the following question of why he had thought about it? He was unhappy with moving from the country where he was from. He was unhappy with losing all his friends. He felt inadequate for not getting into another school. He was unhappy with his parents. He felt alone. He said much, much more, most importantly, I listened and took mental notes.
I ended with the question of “how can I help?” For this question, he didn’t have an answer, but I assured him that I would start by checking in with him more and that I wasn’t going to back off on checking in with him.
Use Your School’s Support System
A lot of schools have processes in place to address these concerns. Unfortunately, our school did not have a comprehensive school crisis plan to deal with these issues. I did, however, work closely with the counselor, and we created a plan to address this particular student in order to support him at school and ensure that he stays healthy. Throughout the year, he met with a counselor, and I continued to check in with him.
Even if the child is at low risk of committing suicide, the school needs to inform parents immediately of the concerns. It is always best to have parents in to discuss the issue and to meet with both the counselor and the appropriate school leadership team member. A couple of key things to follow through with parents is to make sure that they sign that they have received notification about the issue. Parents can also provide some valuable background information about family mental health history that may provide additional insight into how best to support the student. Some international locations will have great support organizations within the city where they live, and others will be limited. The counselor should have a network with local and international organizations for the parents to reach out to as not all parents will know where to turn. Remember to document all meetings with the parents and students.
Throughout the year, Jaime and I built a strong relationship with trust and transparency. I did see an improvement in his academics throughout the year as well as in his adjustment and socialization. Although Jaime had apparently not had any suicidal thoughts to the point where he felt compelled to act upon them, it is always important to be constantly observant and responsive to different ways that students communicate and express their feelings. With students’ emotional needs and wellbeing becoming an increasingly important topic, teachers are the first line of defense and often play a vital role in connecting with students.